A nose for flavour
What is flavour? It is a word often used carelessly and imprecisely. It might refer to different sorts of edibles, such as ice cream (strawberry, stracciatella, New York super fudge chunk), or it might be called on to describe a particular characteristic of a food or drink. But what exactly does it mean? My battered old Collins defines it as, “taste perceived in food or liquid in the mouth”, or “substance added to food, etc, to impart a specific taste”.
Spot the problem here. Flavour isn’t perceived only by taste but also our sense of smell. You could easily argue that all three of our other senses make a large contribution too, but as anyone who has lost it knows only too well, without a sense of smell you would be completely unable to discern one flavour of a smooth ice cream from another. Part of the trickiness is that there is no verb that denotes the complex mixture of senses we use when we perceive flavour: we “taste” things or “smell” them, never both at once. I recently gave a talk on the difference between taste and flavour, as well as a wine-tasting, for supporters of the charity Fifth Sense which campaigns for and provides an information network for those with an impaired sense of smell. A surprising five per cent of the population is potentially anosmic (unable to smell), partially anosmic, or suffers from another smell disorder, but judging by those I met many are still quite keen to drink wine, and to get as much out of it as they possibly can.
We smell in two different ways: orthonasally – when you sniff something that’s in the air or under your nose – and retronasally, when food or drink is already in your mouth and the odour molecules make their way from inside your throat to the olfactory receptors, and it is possible for one capability to be damaged while the other still functions correctly.
Research published this year shows we are capable of distinguishing between one trillion different smells. Our sense of taste, which detects sweet, sour, salt, bitterness, umami and fat, doesn’t offer quite such a rich landscape. Each taste is detected separately and fMRI studies have shown that they activate different areas of a part of the brain called the insular cortex, though which part varies from person to person.
I picked the wines I showed at the Fifth Sense conference with this in mind, first choosing a dry riesling from Australia. Riesling is a highly acidic grape; I was aiming to give those taste receptors something to get freaked out about. It did not go down well. Stripped of its lime-andlilac scent, the anosmics said the riesling just tasted thin and sour. Probably I missed a trick in not opting for a German riesling, in which a sweet-sour interplay along with the viscosity added by the sugar would have been a lot more fun.
Much more successful was a red wine with tannins (a bit of astringency) and – I think this was key – lots of ruffled texture and weight. Domaine Les Yeuses “Les Epices” Syrah 2011/12 (Majestic, £7.99) is a great wine whether you can smell well or not. It has a warm spiciness, and is reminiscent of black pepper too. A really fantastic casserole wine.
Processing this feedback, I realised that those who struggle to smell would probably enjoy wine I routinely dismiss as being “too bretty”. That is, wine infected with the yeast brettanomyces, which often smells of leather or horse breath or cow pats (we used to call this “terroir” – now we know better) and has a distinctive suede-like texture. In sub-£10 wines a bit of brett can add complexity. In a more expensive wine it obscures the rest of the wine to the point where you may as well drink something cheaper. But it is good for anyone suffering from a cold or other temporary or permanent smell loss.
The last drink we tasted was a beer – for the bitterness, but also the bubbles. Bubbles are a helpful source of oral interest for anyone who can’t smell properly. I used to think this was because of the sensation of the bubbles bursting on your tongue. I’ve now learnt that the little prickles you feel jabbing at your tongue and throat when you drink effervescent liquids are caused by a reaction similar to the one that occurs when we eat chilli. In very simple terms, the dissolved carbon dioxide activates our pain receptors – nociceptors – by stimulating an ion channel called TRPV1 (pronounced trip-vee-one). TRPV1 is activated when we eat chilli or garlic, and it’s also deployed to detect potentially tissue-damaging temperatures, or those above 43.25C, which is why chilli makes us hot and sweaty. So you could say that fizzy drinks are a little bit like eating spice. No wonder they’re so much fun.
Is this flavour? Well I think so. I think that flavour is a very broad term. And the more you understand about how it works, particularly if your sense of smell is less than perfect, the more tricks you will want up your sleeve to make eating and drinking more fun.
Another lovely party white, no bubbles this time, just a creamy texture, glimmers of citrus and a peachy smoothness. I had to look the grapes up as couldn’t figure out what it was: a chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and viognier blend, as it turns out. Dangerously drinkable.
Scents and sensibility: enjoying wine isn’t just about appreciating its aroma